Monday, March 28, 2005
Pricing and paying for a new San Diego regional airport
By MARK WALKER
The San Diego (CA) North County Times
NORTH COUNTY —- Denver got a new one for just less than $5 billion. Indianapolis is opening one in 2008 that will arrive at a comparatively affordable $1 billion. Ontario’s, located about 35 miles from downtown Los Angeles, was expanded a little more than a decade ago for about $270 million.
What Indianapolis and Denver got were new airports, while Ontario’s was refurbished.
In 19 months, voters in this county will be asked to approve a site for a new regional airport or a plan to expand San Diego International Airport’s Lindbergh Field.
Until the nine members of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority make their recommendations, putting a price tag on a new or an expanded airport is mostly guesswork. But the authority has suggested the cost of a new airport would land at anywhere between $1 billion and $10 billion, depending on where it was located.
So what will county residents have to shell out? According to the airport authority, very little in direct costs.
A new airport would most likely be built with a combination of taxpayer-funded federal and state grants. Airport users would help pay the tab though a “passenger facility charge,” a common fee at airports. Each passenger passing through Lindbergh now pays a $4.50 facility charge.
Other sources of airport money would probably include airport authority-issued bonds repaid with airport profits and fees charged to airlines, cargo carriers and concessionaires.
Local tax dollars would probably be used in getting residents to a new or expanded airport, paying for new road construction and a light-rail system if necessary.
Despite the facts about how new airports are paid for, almost 75 percent —- 1,200 of 1,600 —- county residents surveyed by the airport authority in the fall believed they would be on the hook when it comes time to pay for a new airport.
Need for airport
The airport authority was established by the state Legislature in 2003 to operate the airport and come up with a recommendation to solve the region’s long-term air transportation needs. It was also charged with having that recommendation ready in time for the 2006 fall elections, a date that some are beginning to suggest may be too soon to meet and may have to be put off until 2008.
The authority’s work is complex and made even more challenging because of Lindbergh’s popularity in the region and among airline passengers. Last week it was named the third-best airport in the Americas, according to a survey of 65,000 airline passengers questioned by the Airports Council International and the International Air Transport Association.
Donn Walker, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman in Los Angeles, agreed last week that the cost of a new airport is dependent on factors not yet decided. So too is the time it would take to build a new airport, which some have suggested could take a decade or longer.
Whatever is decided, the federal government agrees that San Diego needs a bigger airport, he said.
“It will be up to county residents to decide where a new airport is built,” Walker said. “We are not going to say where we think it should be built, but we do believe it is very necessary for what is a growing city and county.
“All we know is that it is one busy airport for a county of 3 million people.”
The authority has winnowed its original list of potential sites for a new airport from 32 to nine. They include an Imperial Valley desert location, an all-but-abandoned Borrego Springs site and a site in Campo. Five military sites under consideration are March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County, two sites at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego, Camp Pendleton and North Island Naval Air Station in Coronado.
The authority was sharply rebuked by the county’s congressional delegation and the state’s U.S. senators on Tuesday for planning to study the military sites. The lawmakers demanded the authority refrain from considering any area military bases until an upcoming round of base closures is decided by the federal government late in the year.
The authority has said it will decide how to handle the base issue on May 17, one day after the Pentagon is slated to release its list of proposed base closures.
As it conducts its search, the authority overseeing a $114 million annual budget and a Lindbergh expansion plan to handle growth during the next decade until a new airport or enlarged existing airfield is ready.
A new airport
The authority has come up with what it calls a “concept airport,” comparable to those serving metropolitan areas similar to San Diego’s. It would consume 3,000 acres —- nearly five times the acreage of Lindbergh —- and provide enough room for two 12,000-foot runways separated by at least 4,300 feet to allow simultaneous take-offs and landings.
“Most important, an airport meeting these requirements will allow the San Diego region to accommodate future air transportation demand in a way that enhances the region’s economic competitiveness and quality of life,” the authority states on its Web site.
The aviation administration is the permitting authority for new airports. Assuming the authority selects a site other than Lindbergh, it would have to apply for airspace approval and a building permit and conduct an analysis of zoning issues.
If the authority opted for federal funds to help pay for a new airport, the aviation administration would have to ensure that all regulatory criteria is met and that air traffic projections are accurate. That process would involve more than a half dozen aviation administration departments.
After those steps, it would ask the aviation administration to include the airport in its national planning, prepare an environmental assessment, an airport layout plan and applications for federal funding.
A public hearing would be conducted and allow for testimony from virtually any interested group or individual.
A citizen group assisting the site selection process will review a refined list of selection criteria and access issues for Lindbergh, Borrego Springs, Campo and Imperial County starting at 1 p.m. Tuesday at the Sheraton San Diego Hotel.
Paying for a new airport could involve the following: